For me, the word tradition is synonymous with Fiddler on the Roof. It is the song the musical opens with, and it is the theme that permeates the entire story.
The famous Broadway musical is based on the stories of Tevye the Milkman, written by the Yiddish author and playwright Solomon Rabinovich, known better by his pen name of Sholem Aleichem (Шолом-Алейхем). Sholem was born in Ukraine in 1859 and later immigrated to the United States as part of the Jewish exodus from the oppressive tsarist Russia. My family owned a full collection of his works, so I grew up reading his stories, novels, and plays, which I viewed as my historical heritage. Of course, I had to see Fiddler on Roof! But, like many staged productions, and especially Broadway shows, Fiddler on the Roof had interesting twists on the Jewish traditions, which were a bit different than what I'd heard from my grandparents and other elders as a young girl. For starters, I was surprised to see that the fiddler’s depiction of the shtetl was a patriarchate.
(Tevye & Papas)
Who day and night
Must scramble for a living
Feed the wife and children
Say his daily prayers
And who has the right
As master of the house
To have the final word at home?
Growing up, I don’t think I knew a single Jewish family in which the father had the final word at home. I knew some families in which fathers didn’t have any word at all – but certainly not the other way around. In my knowledge of a traditional Jewish household, moms ruled the world. Moms defined rights and wrongs, moms made decisions, and moms laid out plans. Dads were kept posted. For the most part.
The second surprise was when it came to family planning.
And who does mama teach
To mend and tend and fix
Preparing me to marry
Whoever papa picks?
When it came to matchmakers, the moms I knew would never trust their inept husbands to pair up their beloved offspring! I could always tell moms were up to something when they gathered behind closed doors in the kitchen, discussing something in low, whispery voices. It usually meant that someone had a daughter or a son old enough to tie the knot. And their parents wanted to see them wed to a Jewish spouse.
It didn’t always work, but the moms, aunties, and grandmas always tried. The modern Jewish moms and dads had one thing in common with the Anatevka mamas and papas: they both wanted their children to marry their own kind – and stay Jewish. That was one tradition they felt strongly about. Luckily, they didn’t banish their rebellious offspring from their sight like Tevye did his daughter who chose to wed outside her faith. Otherwise, quite a few young folk from my generation would end up not talking to our parents ever again. Myself included.
"Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as a fiddler on the roof!"
What would you say? Does tradition preserve the best of the past or stunts new growth?